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Israel unleashes blitz to beat deadline for a UN ceasefire

The Sunday Times :: 13 August, 2006 :: Tony Allen-Mills, New York, and Uzi Mahnaimi, Tel Aviv

ISRAEL intensified its military attacks on Lebanon yesterday in the hope of inflicting a final round of punishment on Hezbollah fighters ahead of a United Nations-agreed ceasefire that is expected to be approved by the Israeli cabinet today.

A last-minute blitzkrieg by Israeli troops and warplanes underlined the fragility of the peace deal agreed by the United Nations security council in New York on Friday. Officials warned that it may be days before tomorrow’s ceasefire can take hold, and the process may yet be derailed by continuing clashes on the ground.

Determined to extract a military victory after an inconclusive campaign that has been heavily criticised both in Israel and abroad, the Israeli Defence Forces sent a fourth division of paratroopers into south Lebanon early yesterday to pursue the Hezbollah fighters whose resilience has stunned many Israelis and led to calls for the resignation of Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

Scores of people were killed in renewed Israeli air and ground attacks. Columns of Israeli Merkava tanks pushed northwards towards the Litani river, pounding shells into the surrounding countryside. Israeli officers claimed that the Hezbollah onslaught of incoming Katyusha rockets had all but evaporated.

More than 800 Lebanese and 120 Israelis have died since Hezbollah triggered the current crisis by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border strike on July 12. There are now believed to be nearly 30,000 Israeli troops operating in southern Lebanon.

Fresh doubt was cast on the likely effectiveness of the UN-brokered peace deal when Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, Israel’s senior military commander, questioned how and when proposals for a ceasefire and the creation of a beefed-up UN peacekeeping force would be implemented.

“We are fighting Hezbollah and will continue to fight it until a ceasefire is decided, but more than that, until it is decided what the mechanism is for implementing (the ceasefire),” Halutz said. “We will continue to operate until we achieve our aims.”

Olmert’s decision to accept the UN peace deal while at the same time ordering a new military offensive has clouded the outlook for a long-delayed diplomatic effort that Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, acknowledged had “badly shaken the world’s faith in (the UN’s) authority and integrity”.

The resolution drafted by France and the United States called for the expansion of the UN’s largely impotent 2,000- member peacekeeping force in Lebanon — known as Unifil — into a muscular army of 15,000 troops empowered to join Lebanese forces in occupying a 15-mile wide buffer zone north of Israel’s border.

It also called for Israeli forces to begin withdrawing from Lebanon “in parallel” with the arrival of the UN and Lebanese troops. But it contained no new provisions for the one requirement that President George W Bush and Tony Blair, the prime minister, had both described as crucial for long-term peace in the area — the disarmament of Hezbollah.

The resolution amounted to an embarrassing climbdown for a president and a prime minister who had both argued at their meeting in the White House two weeks ago that there was no point in seeking an immediate ceasefire in the region and that the crisis in Lebanon was a “moment of opportunity” to encourage “broader change” in the region.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, described the crisis as “the birth pangs of the new Middle East”. However, the Israeli army’s campaign against Hezbollah failed to deliver the knock-out blow that London and Washington were hoping for.

Faced with mounting civilian casualties and increasing celebration in the Arab world every time a Hezbollah rocket struck Israel, Bush and Blair went on holiday leaving Rice in charge of finding a face-saving diplomatic exit.

Although military experts agreed that Hezbollah has been seriously weakened — and Iran’s influence in Lebanon at least temporarily reduced — Washington has paid a heavy price for abandoning its traditional role as the so-called “honest broker” of the Middle East.

Rice’s reputation for cool competence has been severely tarnished by her handling of the crisis. When Lebanese civilians were being bombed in Beirut, Rice was photographed playing the piano at a minor summit in Asia.

When dozens were killed in an Israeli bombing raid on Qana, Rice negotiated a 48- hour suspension of air strikes which the Israelis broke after only 12 hours. A Palestinian newspaper, Al-Quds, ridiculed her “birth pangs” remark by depicting her as pregnant with an armed Israeli monkey. And neoconservative elements in Washington are furious that she has given in to international pressure to curb Israel’s offensive.

It also became clear in Iraq that insurgents and Shi’ite militant groups are stepping up their attacks in retaliation for the Israeli assault on Hezbollah. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Baghdad, said on Friday that Iran had been urging Shi’ite militias in Iraq to strike at US targets, provoking a surge in rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone.

Hezbollah’s resistance appears to have inspired militants throughout the region. One prominent Shi’ite cleric in Iraq declared on Friday that “the Zionist entity’s power has been broken and has been weakened in battle”.

Sheikh Asad al-Nasiri, a supporter of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical militia leader, said Hezbollah had given “the best examples of bravery and sacrifice”.

Even in moderate Arab states that initially condemned Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel, guarded support for Washington turned to alarm and anger as the Lebanese civilian death toll climbed.

Yet it was in Israel itself that the greatest political shocks were felt. After decades projecting an aura of unchallenged omnipotence, the Israeli Defence Forces found themselves up against an enemy they could not find, using weapons they could not destroy.

“These Hezbollah, they will do anything, use any tactic,” complained Lieutenant Samil Tafish, an Israeli paratroop commander who last week led his Eagle brigade into a village he had once lived in in south Lebanon. “They do not want to fight us face-to-face, they stay well away and they use civilians as cover. If they had not used civilians we would have finished the job quickly.”

The colonel’s frustration echoed across the country amid reports that generals were fighting among themselves over the conduct of the war and complaints that Olmert was now caving in to international pressure to halt before any kind of victory had been achieved.

Israeli television reported on Friday night that several of the country’s most senior military officers had written to Halutz complaining that war plans were in chaos and that soldiers were being used on missions for which they had not been trained.

Uri Goldflan, 35, a headmaster and reservist paratrooper, was sitting at home watching a film three weeks ago when he was called to arms. He admitted that he had “twenty-four hours to completely change my psyche, my entire personality . . . We are an entire battalion of civilians who suddenly find themselves going to war”.

Two days later he was marching into the border village of Markabe searching for Hezbollah rocket-launchers. Goldflan said he was committed to his task and did not want to return to school when term starts next month with Hezbollah rockets still falling.

But he admitted to “mixed feelings” about his duties. His battalion was withdrawn from Markabe after 36 hours, but by then nine Israeli soldiers had been wounded. “I saw where Hezbollah had built a bunker beneath a school to protect themselves,” he said. “It was mind-boggling.”

An opinion poll published by Haaretz, the leading Israeli newspaper, found that only 20% of Israelis believe that the war could be called a victory if it ends now. One third believe the UN resolution represents a defeat and almost half believe the deal is the best Israel could hope for in the circumstances — a far cry from the days when Israeli troops mopped up the combined forces of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq in the Six Day War.

Olmert has borne the brunt of the criticism for failing to achieve any decisive advantage to Israel. “You cannot lead an entire nation to war promising victory, produce humiliating defeat and remain in power,” said a front-page editorial in Haaretz.

“You cannot bury 120 Israelis in cemeteries, keep a million Israelis in shelters for a month and then say, ‘Oops, I made a mistake’,” the paper added. “If Olmert runs away now from the war he initiated, he will not be able to remain prime minister for even one more day.”

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, pledged yesterday that his militia would abide by the UN resolution. However, its language is so carefully couched in compromise that some analysts fear the new-look Unifil may never be able to take up position.

The resolution demands an immediate cessation of “all attacks” by Hezbollah, but only of “all offensive military operations” by Israel. Tel Aviv has long claimed that its operations are defensive, not offensive.

Rice acknowledged on Friday that “nobody can expect an immediate end to all acts of violence”. She also acknowledged, off the record, that if Israel was faced with another threat “then, yes, Israel can respond”. American officials said they expected Israel’s large-scale bombing campaign to stop, but the resolution contains no deadline.

France and Italy are expected to take the lead in forming the new Unifil force, which will be heavily armed and authorised to take “all necessary action” to prevent hostilities in the buffer zone. The plight of the two Israeli soldiers whose seizure triggered the conflict remains unclear — the resolution calls for their release without making it a condition of a ceasefire.

“Israel will not get everything it sought in this resolution, but neither will Lebanon,” said Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary.

Announcing the deal on Friday, Annan said he would be remiss “if I did not tell you how profoundly disappointed I am that the council did not reach this point much, much earlier”.

Additional reporting: Bob Graham

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This entry was posted on 13 August, 2006 by in Empire, War and Terror, Hegemon-watch, Human Rights, International Law, Israel, Israel Watch, Lebanon, UN.

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